Perfectionism. What is it?

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” Yes, I like it when everything is flawless – so what? How could it be otherwise? If everyone will do a so-so job – what then? You should always bring your task to perfection.”- passionately said Tabitha. “My father always used to say “If you can’t do it well do not do it at all!” He always wore impeccably ironed pants and shirts (terrorized my Mom about it). His mustache was immaculately groomed – not a hair out of place! And what kind of designs he created – he would re-do them over and over again – to make sure everything is right. He would beat me if even one word in my notebook was not aligned properly. And I think he was right! Look at me – now I am… a professional with a capital P. You can’t find a single flaw in my work – everyone knows it! As for my Dad… He died from a heart attack at the age of 45. Got tired of improving the world.”

Perfectionism is a character trait that stems from the desire to reach a flawless ideal. It is an internal need to bring the results of any task to the highest standards not achievable by other people.

Why is this a so-so strategy? Because reality gets replaced by a mythical unattainable ideal and the joy of life gets deprioritized. Life as a whole turns into a race for non-existent “perfection”. You can keep chasing it forever, but it is impossible to catch this ghost because “perfection” is an illusion. Even the Sun has spots – we know it from credible sources.

When we chase the ideal, we remain… in place. Since if a person doesn’t have an ideal environment, they are not going to do anything at all – why bother?

“If only I had the right education…”, “if only I earned twice as much money…”, “if only my partner…” – all these “if only” are stop signals that include disappointment in your abilities.

Mariana was competing in a well-known cooking show. She liked cooking and was selected to be on the show from many candidates. Mariana truly knows how to cook well and presents the food beautifully. But… only when she has plenty of time. When she is short on time, she loses it and cannot submit a single dish to the judges. She keeps redoing it and redoing it. While olives are not perfectly arranged with respect to a slice of a cucumber and the composition on the plate still has room for improvement – she is not able to move on. She will be rearranging, and rearranging, and rearranging… Meanwhile, time is running out. But the real crisis happened when Mariana was appointed as a captain of the team. She was responsible for the team’s outcome. Everyone’s work was stalled because she could not allow anyone to show initiative. She was redoing every dish after every single person. Her team lost miserably and her relationships with her teammates got tense.

Perfectionism manifests itself as excessively high standards and attention to detail, and constant dissatisfaction with the results. 

Yes, that’s right – an attempt to make a perfectionist happy with results is doomed for failure. It is as if inside of them, there is an anxious eternally disgruntled person holding a measuring scale, where 100% result means just… “ok”, and the mark “perfect” is far off the scale. This person measures everything on the scale and raises his eyebrow – “What’s that? You can do better! This is good for nothing…”

In other words, the values of a perfectionist are so distorted that their bar is set extremely high. It is impossible to reach it by definition.

The problem is that the person doesn’t realize this. They view the absence of the desired outcome as a result of their own mistakes, not trying hard enough, not being motivated enough, not having enough skills – in other words, all they see is “not enough”. ☹

No wonder that under these circumstances perfectionists frequently seek the help of psychologists. The only thing is… that they complain about being not effective enough, trying not hard enough. They ask how they can make themselves to do “better” – and usually, they don’t consider options that involve a “carrot”. Only a “stick”! Only hardcore! Otherwise, they will not be able to achieve anything!

Harry is always composed, serious, and productive. His schedule is packed: workouts (his body should be in an ideal form), work (you can’t relax, you must perform), working on his motivation (books, planning, defining goals). The time he spends sleeping is a waste – he could have done so much instead! His physician referred him to a psychologist: he had many symptoms but no underlying illness. Turned out that Harry was depressed and exhausted. He felt like he is running in circles but achieving nothing. And the less he achieves the more he deprives himself of sleep and rest. That’s the result of striving for perfection.

The fact that perfectionists often experience depression and anxiety is no surprise. It is very hard to live with the realization that you don’t satisfy your standards…

We want to suggest that you try to determine if you are susceptible to this toxic “disease”. 

  • You evaluate yourself by your achievements
  • You get “fixated” on details
  • Your motto is “if you can’t do it perfectly do not do it at all”.
  • You strive for perfection
  • Your mistakes make you feel unsettled
  • Other people do not meet your standards, and you also have so much room for growth
  • You set unattainable goals
  • You have a lot of anxiety and you are afraid that others may judge you
  • You want to control everyone and everything
  • It is very hard for you to make decisions
  • It is very difficult for you to finish projects because you always feel that “you can make it better”
  • You ignore compliments, but you notice and even imagine the criticism
  • You painfully react to criticism and at the same time get mad at yourself
  • You are afraid that you don’t meet the expectations of others

If you said “yes” more than 7 times – perfectionism is your problem, unfortunately. In the next article, we will look at the sources of perfectionism. Before you can solve this problem you need to understand its origins.